Saturday, May 06, 2006

Kin to the Saboteur - Ch. 5

“Thanks for inviting me on this fishing trip,” Adam said to the brawny man in the worn denims and striped flannel shirt beside him.

With their horses eating in the elevated green pasture behind them, the two men sat on large rocks on the lower sandy part of the hill. A small natural lake was before them filled with perch, pike, and a type of catfish called bullhead. They hoped to catch several of each kind on this hot Sunday afternoon that felt much cooler by the lake.

“My pleasure, New York City,” Hezekiah replied. He stroked his thick gray-streaked whiskers with one hand while holding the fishing rod with the other. “Besides, I miss having someone to go fishing with. My daughters are married now and with small babies to tend to. And my son…”

Adam’s head snapped to the right to look at his companion, whose voice had broken and trailed off at the end. “If it’s too difficult to talk about your son, I certainly understand. My father and I are not on good terms, either.”

Hezekiah shook his head. “No, that’s not it at all. My son and I were on the best of terms when he died.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear about your loss. Was it recent?” Adam inquired in a very sympathetic tone. He’d never seen a father look so contrite before. It was obvious that Sheriff Birch really loved his son. Knowing that caused bitterness to rise up in Adam’s heart towards his own father. Why couldn’t Robert O’Donnell love him like that? Now Adam’s face looked contrite.

Seeing Adam look just as troubled as him about the current subject, caused something to move within Hezekiah’s heart. Before he knew it, he was sharing a piece of his history that still garnered feelings of guilt to this day. “No. My son died at the age of five. And even though it was a long time ago, the pain of it is still fresh in my mind. Especially since I’m the one that caused his death.”

Then despite the guilt trying to attack the forgiven man’s soul, Hezekiah began to open up even more and talk about his younger years as a gunfighter. How he was so good that his fame made him a prize and constant target for young wannabes and sometimes tough saloon drunks who wanted to build their reputation off of his.

“I didn’t know what it was like to have a good night’s sleep during that time in my life. I slept with one eye open and used to spread crumpled newspapers across the floor so that any sound of rustling would wake me up. And I was constantly getting up checking the windows and doors all night long so that I never felt rested by daybreak,” Hezekiah continued as he gripped the thick split-cane fishing rod with both hands. He needed to hold on to something as more bad memories began to flood his soul.

“I imagine not,” Adam said, looking down for a moment to swat at a long-legged bug that had landed on the right leg of his denims. The critter instantly spread its almost transparent wings and flew away to a less dangerous resting place on a tree branch nearby.

“Yet that was the only way a gunfighter could truly stay alive. I had to be on guard nearly twenty-four hours a day. To this day I still don’t sit or sleep in any possible line of fire, I always like to keep my back to a wall, I enter all doorways swiftly, and I never cross in the middle of a street,” Hezekiah replied, steadily leading up to the heart of the matter which was the murder of his son.

“When did you give that lifestyle up? Surely you didn’t try to have a family while being a gunfighter,” Adam inquired, thoroughly engrossed in the man’s tale now. He’d never meet a real-life gunfighter before. Only read about them in books. Even then they never showed the human side of those extraordinary men.

“No, I didn’t. I gave up gunfighting when I met my beautiful wife, Lolita. My love for that woman made me want to change, made me want to be a better man. Unfortunately, our firstborn…our precious little boy died at the hands of a man who didn’t want me to leave my past behind me.” Hezekiah’s sparkling blue eyes misted over at this point. He had to keep telling himself that God had forgiven him of his past in order to go on.

Adam could only nod that he was still following the story, because his throat was too constricted with emotion to speak right now. And even if he could speak, he couldn’t think of a thing to say. What could someone say to a person whose past caused the death of a child, especially their own child?

“I’ll never forget the way that young fool looked, coming down the street, wearing a brand new brown Stetson and toting two silver six-shooters at his side. Somebody must have told him I was in the barbershop, because he came right in there and tried to get me to meet him in the street for a showdown. Not having a yellow bone in my body, I met him in the street all right. But at the same time, I was determined to keep my word to my wife and not kill anybody for sport anymore.” Hezekiah blinked away his tears as a hard look appeared in his eyes. It was clear that his mind had gone all the way back in time as he recalled every detail of that painful period in his life.

“Well, when the moment of truth came that young fool starting firing with both guns, trying to show off.” Hezekiah laughed sarcastically. “Any serious gunfighter knows that you have to take your time in a showdown. Not act slowly, just skillfully by taking a split fraction of a second to make your first shot your last. Quickly fanning the hammer even with two guns means nothing if you don’t have the natural skill to match it. Well, my first shot was my last.”

“You killed him?” Adam asked, having found his voice now after swallowing repeatedly.

“No, but I did wound his best shooting hand pretty good, causing him to drop both guns. I did it that way in order to teach the young fool a thing or two about challenging the more experienced. I also did it to put him out of the gun fighting business for good.” Hezekiah swallowed hard and his eyes misted over again. “But I end up making a fatal mistake by letting him live to come back for revenge. Three months later, while I was out laying tracks for the railroad, that same young fool find out where my house was and shot it up. Although my wife tried to shield our son’s body with hers, one of the bullets passed through her body and killed him anyway.”

Adam watched the older man turn away before a tear fell. “I’m so sorry, Sheriff Birch. Did your wife die also?” He naturally assumed that the sheriff’s two daughters were by a different woman based on what he’d been told so far.

Hezekiah wiped his lone tear away and turned back to face his companion. “I appreciate your sympathy, New York City. And no, Lolita did not die. She’s very much alive and kicking. In fact, she kicked me just this morning trying to wake me up for church,” he said, trying to add a bit of humor in the situation. Hezekiah returned both hands to his fishing rod, but the grip was not as tight this time. The guilt had passed. It had been washed away by the flood of remembered forgiveness.

“That’s good to know.” Adam felt relief as if this had all happened in his family instead of someone else’s. Yet somehow he felt close to the man who’d dared to share so much of his painful past with an absolute stranger. Adam couldn’t help but admire Sheriff Birch for that trait. He didn’t know if he was courageous enough to do the same.

“And in case you’re wondering what happened to that young fool, I can tell you now that he’s no longer among the living. I can also tell you that he deserved every bullet he got. Not only was he stupid enough to linger around town after attacking my family, he was even more stupid to later try to kill me at my own son’s burial services.”

At Adam’s raised brows, Hezekiah added, “Oh, I didn’t kill him. At least not that I know of. You see, when that fool came riding past that cemetery, every man there with a gun popped a cap in him. We never knew which bullet killed him and none of us rightly cared.”

Adam nodded. He wouldn’t have cared, either. Just as long as his son’s murderer was dead also. “Did all of this happen in Miskito? I haven’t been here long, but I’m heard enough about a lot of other people in this town to have missed something that interesting.”

“No, it happened up in Montana. My wife and I came here after she was strong enough to travel. On the ferry ride down, we changed our names in order to warn off any more trigger happy varmints and to truly start our lives over. We built up a good life for ourselves in Miskito, had our two daughters here and everything. Only a few trustworthy people know about my Montana life. Gordon Ackerman was one of them. His daughter Halona is another.” Hezekiah pointed to Adam. “And although I don’t rightly know why I told all this to you, I can see it in your eyes that you’re a man familiar with keeping secrets.”

You couldn’t be more right, Adam mused, shaking his head in agreement as he used his free hand to trace a large weather-worn groove in the rock he sat on. The action felt soothing to him. Adam had to do something to break the tension that had been building in his body since this fishing trip started. He thought this fishing trip would include further interrogation into his past, yet so far it has contained open disclosure about the sheriff’s life instead.

“And I figure if I trust you with one of my deepest, darkest secrets, you will one day trust me with one of yours,” Hezekiah continued. Then he began to tell Adam another story. This one was about a remarkable Negro woman he met in Montana who goes by the name of Black Mary.

“What a name,” Adam said, feeling a lot better now that the conversation had shifted to a lighter subject. He also felt good about the fact that Hezekiah had said the Negro woman’s name with such esteem. That was a clear sign that Miskito’s white sheriff had the necessary and proper respect for all people. Adam was pleased by that. It made him like Hezekiah all the more.

“Yeah, but what a lady, too. Her real name is Mary Fields and she is as tough as she is kind. Although she wears about two hundred pounds, smokes cigars, drinks, swears with the best of them and prefers the company of men, she has a heart of gold. Mary not only nursed the Mother Superior of a women’s convent back to health a few years ago, she also undertook the dangerous job of hauling supplies by wagon for the nuns. And that’s in addition to feeding the convent’s chickens, keeping the garden, and washing their clothes.”

“She is quite a lady,” Adam agreed, relaxing even more.

“Yeah, reminds me a lot of Halona Ackerman,” Hezekiah said, finally feeling a slight tug on his line.

“How so? From what little I’ve seen of Miss Ackerman she’s barely a hundred and twenty pounds and doesn’t look to be a smoker or a drinker,” Adam replied, starting to feel a tug on his line as well. He put both hands on his rod now.

“They have the same toughness and the same heart of gold. Both women are the salt of the earth in my opinion and deserve all the happiness they can get in this life,” Hezekiah concluded. Then he began to focus all of his attention on reeling in the narrow-bodied, long-snouted fish hooked to his sturdy fishing rod.

“It looks like we’re going to have pike for supper,” Adam said, reeling in a wiggling freshwater specimen nearly identical to the one his fishing partner had on his hook.

© 2006 Suprina Frazier

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